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Book  Review    

Bankrupting   Nature:   Denying   Our   Planetary   Boundaries.   Andres   Wijkman  and  Johan  Rockström,  New  York:  Routledge,  2012.    

Bankrupting   Nature:   Denying   our   Planetary   Boundaries   by   Andres   Wijkman   and   Johan   Rockström  emerges   from   the   original   report   of   The   Club   of   Rome’s   The   Limits   to   Growth   authored   by   Meadows   and   colleagues   in   1972.   This   book   demonstrates   that   an   economy   built  on  the  continuous  expansion  of  material  consumption  is  utterly  not  sustainable.  Based   on   the   increased   evidence   of   an   uncanny   correlation   between   escalating   rates   of   global   economic  growth  and  environmental  degradation,  this  book  continues  to  raise  worldwide   awareness   of   environmental   problems   created   as   a   result   of   anthropogenic   activities.  

Bankrupting   Nature   demonstrates   that   political   leaders   are   still   in   deep   denial   about   the   magnitude  of  global  environmental  challenges  and  resource  constraints  facing  the  world.  

The  authors  state  that  the  challenges  of  sustainability  cannot  be  met  by  simply  tinkering   with  the  current  economic  system,  but  will  require  major  changes  in  the  way  members  of   political   and   corporate   elites   and   the   general   public   perceive   and   address   environmental   and  social  issues.  As  reported  in  a  recent  press  release  by  The  Club  of  Rome  (2012),  this   volume  lays  out  a  blue-­‐print  for  a  radically  new  economic  paradigm  that  links  economics   with  ecology,  arguing  that  this  is  the  only  way  to  generate  growth  in  the  future.  

The  aims  of  the  book  are  manifold:  to  “critically  examine  the  relationship  between  human   beings  and  nature  and  the  threats  we  pose  to  the  complex  natural  systems  on  Earth”  (p.1);  

to  outline  a  “well-­‐articulated  vision  of  what  kind  of  society  we  want  to  see  in  the  long  term”  

(p.  7);  to  “draw  attention  to  some  promising  paths  towards  a  more  sustainable  use  of  land,   water,  and  nutrients”  (p.  54);  to  “highlight  the  issue  of  population  growth  in  climate  change   negotiations”   (p.   83);   and   to   focus   on   changes   “that   will   make   the   financial   sector   a   constructive  force  in  overall  efforts  towards  a  more  sustainable  society”  (p.  147).  

The  authors  introduce  the  concept  of  ‘planetary  boundaries’  as  a  powerful  explanation  of  the   limits   of   the   planet   to   sustain   continued   economic   and   population   growth.   Wijkman   and   Rockström  focus  on  cultural  and  lifestyle  issues  as  well  as  the  economy,  “because  these  are   the  areas  where  the  key  changes  must  occur  in  order  to  address  the  serious  threats  to  the   biosphere”  (p.1).  The  authors  question  whether  today’s  political  system  is  at  all  prepared  to   take  on  the  long  term  challenges  posed  by  globalization,  population  growth,  climate  change   and  the  over-­‐consumption  of  both  finite  and  renewable  resources  (p.2).  

In   discussing   population   growth,   Wijkman   and   Rockström   state   that   “The   biggest   gains   from  significantly  lower  birth  rates  would  be  the  combination  of  a  better  quality  of  life  for  

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both   women   and   children   and   a   greater   potential   for   stabilizing   the   climate”   (p.   84).  

Wijkman   and   Rockström   express   their   concerns   for   reducing   child   and   mother   mortality   and  increasing  the  wealth  of  poor  nations  (p.  80)  as  well  as  concerns  for  providing  for  the  

“two  to  three  billion  new  citizens  that  will  be  born  during  the  next  forty  years”  (p.  81).  On   the  one  hand,  they  find  that  efforts  to  improve  human  health  are  crucial,  as  are  measures  to   support  job  creation  and  access  to  modern  energy;  on  the  other  hand,  they  also  find  that   efforts  to  reduce  number  of  births  should  be  given  high  priority  (p.  82).  

The   authors   place   particular   emphasis   on   importance   of   reproductive   health,   including   family   planning   and   school   attendance   for   girls.   In   addressing   long-­‐term   effects   of   population  growth,  the  authors  state:  

Some   people   claim   that   the   size   of   the   world   population   has   no   importance   for   sustainability  because  of  the  low  resource  and  carbon  footprints  of  the  poor.  While   such   an   argument   may   be   valid   in   the   short-­‐term  perspective   –   global   consumers   have  until  now  accounted  for  by  far  the  greatest  amount  of  pollution  and  resource   depletion   –   it   totally   misses   the   point   in   the   longer   term.   All   people   born   on   this   planet  have  the  right  to  decent  living  conditions.  This  is  what  governments  ought  to   prioritize.  From  such  a  perspective  it  is  obvious  that  the  prerequisites  for  achieving   sustainability  will  be  more  favorable  the  sooner  the  world  population  stabilizes  (p.  

82-­‐83).  

Here,   the   authors   mount   a   clever   attack   on   the   current   socio-­‐political   manipulation   of   environmental   issues   by   the   dominant   power   elites.     This   includes   cases   of   politically   motivated  strategies  for  discrediting  climate  change  science  as  well  as  the  short-­‐termism  in   the   system   that   supports   most   currently   existing   energy   policies   (p.   142).     The   authors   provide  many  useful  and  practical  ideas  with  regards  to  the  reformation  of  financial  sector,   based  on  their  discussion  of  “growth  dilemma”  which  implies  consideration  of  impossibility   of   de-­‐growth   (given   current   structural   constraints)   coupled   with   the   attempt   at   the   transformation  of  the  economic  system  (p.  149).  A  strong  plea  is  made  for  abandoning  GDP   growth  as  the  key  objective  for  development  and  focusing  instead  on  a  limited  number  of   welfare   indicators.   Wijkman   and   Rockström   question   the   “trickle-­‐down”   concept   and   replace  it  with  one  of  sufficiency.  

Bankrupting  Nature  asserts  that  despite  clear  threats,  power  elites  including  politicians  and   corporate  leaders  have  still  not  done  enough  to  combat  environmental  problems.  Since  the   publication   of   the   first   report   of   The   Club   of   Rome,   a   global   think   tank   and   center   of   innovation  and  initiative,  the  general  message  that  biodiversity  protection  requires  drastic   measures,   including   the   curbing   of   economic   growth   and   population   have   proved   to   be   unpalatable   to   political   leaders.   While   empirical   evidence   is   accumulating   to   support   the   prediction  that  the  values  predicted  by  the  limits-­‐to-­‐growth  model  and  actual  data  from  the  

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turn  of  the  century  are  very  close  as  evidenced  by  empirical  studies  such  as  Hall  and  Day   (2009),  and  Turner  (2010),  the  limits-­‐to-­‐growth  debate  seems  overshadowed  by  the  new   optimism   of   ‘sustainable   development’   and   the   refusal   of   power   elites   to   address   population  growth  and  the  rise  of  consumerism.  

In  addressing  the  question  as  to  why  political  and  corporate  elites  as  well  as  the  general   public   seem   unwilling   to   acknowledge   the   fact   that   humanity   is   “living   far   beyond   its   means”   (p.   4)   and   consistently   ignore   any   calls   for   radically   altering   the   systems   of   production  and  consumption,  Wijkman  and  Rockström  offer  explanations  such  as  the  lack   of  adequate  education,  an  unwillingness  to  change  habits,  and  powerful  business  interests   which  strongly  defend  business  as  usual  models  and  the  like.  

The   book   is   helpful   in   raising   awareness   of   the   issues   as   well   as   presenting   possible   solutions.   Wijkman   and   Rockström   provide   support   for   the   concepts   of   the   ‘circular   economy’  and  the  ‘cradle  to  cradle’  framework.  The  idea  of  the  circular  economy  refers  to  a   restorative   industrial   system   that   mimics   natural   processes   and   promotes   a   life   cycle   in   which  no  materials  are  wasted.  Material  flows  are  of  two  types,  biological  nutrients,  which   are   biodegradable   and   technical   nutrients,   which   are   designed   to   circulate   for   endless   reuse.  

In  their  1976  research  report  to  the  European  Commission  “The  Potential  for  Substituting   Manpower  for  Energy”,  Walter  Stahel  and  Genevieve  Reday  (1977)  sketched  a  vision  of  a   circular   economy   and   its   impact   on   job   creation,   economic   competitiveness,   resource   savings   and   waste   prevention   (http://www.product-­‐life.org/en/cradle-­‐to-­‐cradle).This   framework  was  later  adopted  by  William  McDonough  and  Michael  Braungart  (2002)  and   recently   popularized   by   Ellen  MacArthur   Foundation   (2012).   According   to   the   Cradle   to   Cradle  (C2C)  model,  that  is  opposed  to  “cradle  to  grave”  (from  creation  to  disposal),  eco-­‐

efficiency  only  works  to  make  the  old,  destructive  system  last  longer.  As  opposed  to  these   models,   McDonough   and   Braungart   propose   a   production   system   based   on   effectiveness,   not  efficiency.  Instead  of  just  minimizing  the  damage,  such  innovative  thinking  addresses   the   question   of   how   contemporary   waste   and   depletion   of   resources   can   be   avoided.  

Wijkman   and   Rockström   propose   that   such   a   framework,   in   combination   with   curbing   population  growth,  can  lead  to  a  more  sustainable  future.  

Futhermore,  Wijkman  and  Rockström  propose  a  reformation  of  the  tax  system:  namely  by   raising   taxes   on   resource   use   and   reducing   those   on   labour,   and   insisting   that   the   new   system  should  be  based  on  business  models  where  revenue  is  earned  through  performance   and  high-­‐quality  service  and  extending  product-­‐  life.  A  pre-­‐condition  would  be  to  introduce   mandatory  reporting  by  major  companies,  in  particular  bank  and  financial  institutions,  on   how  their  activities  affect  the  environment.  

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There  are  also  some  issues  within  the  book  itself  that  do  not  have  easy  solutions.  Among   these   are   the   unresolved   paradoxes   that   crop   up   throughout   the   book;   another   related   issue   is   the   practicality   of   the   concerns   raised   and   the   applicability   of   the   authors’  

prescriptions  given  the  constraints  of  the  current  socio-­‐political  and  economic  system.  

One  such  moral  dilemma  is  Wijkman  and  Rockström’s  call  for  rich  countries  to  hold  back   their   material   growth   in   order   to   leave   room   for   a   rising   living   standard   among   poorer   nations.  Would  the  expansion  of  wealth  to  include  the  most  dispossessed  not  lead  to  more   natural   resources   being   consumed,   since   at   present   the   poor   are   much   more   numerous   than   the   rich?   In   other   words,   the   moral   imperative   to   reduce   poverty   threatens   to   transgress  the  environmental  imperative  to  decrease  consumption.  To  quote  from  another   book  on  population,  Life  on  The  Brink  (2012):  

In  a   globalized   world,   where   ‘the   end   of   poverty’   has   become   largely   synonymous   with   the   dissemination   of   a   modern   high-­‐consumption   standard   of   living,   overconsumption   andoverpopulation   are   a   seamless   whole.   Consider   the   rapid   escalation   of   global   trade,   the   worldwide   expansion   of   car   culture…   and   the   swift   rise  of  meat  consumption  in  formerly  poor  countries.  Such  trends  should  dispel  any   lingering   notions   that   overconsumption   can   be   dealt   with   while   ignoring   overpopulation,  or  vice  versa  (Crist  and  Cafaro,  2012:7).  

In   addition,   Wijkman   and   Rockström   have   a   tendency   to   uncritically   adopt   the   anthropocentric   terminology   of   UNESCO   and   The   World   Bank,   repeating   phrases   such   as  

“natural  resources”  and  “ecosystem  services”  as  if  they  are  unproblematic.  While  the  book   starts   with   the   ambition   to   “address   the   serious   threats   to   the   biosphere”   that   result   in  

“displacing   and   eradicating   countless   species   and   ecosystems”   (p.1),   the   possibility   of   inherent   values   or   rights   of   non-­‐human   species   and   deep   ecology   perspectives   is   not   discussed.   In   fact,   the   authors   (probably   unintentionally)   seem   to   support   an   entirely   anthropocentric   vision   that   perceives   the   “living   biosphere   and   natural   resources   as   the   prerequisites  for  prosperity  and  development  in  the  future”  (p.  1).  Wijkman  and  Rockström   are   careful   not   to   tread   on   any   questions   that   might   be   considered   politically   incorrect,   such   as   the   implications   concerning   the   rhetoric   of   “feeding”   humanity   in   relation   to   the   plight   of   billions   of   plant   and   animals   needed   daily   to   satisfy   growing   human   needs.   As   Eileen   Crist   reflects,   the   question   posed   in   relation   to   human   population   and   natural   resources   should   be   framed   differently   from   the   conventional   “What   is   the   maximum   number  of  people  for  whom  Earth  can  provide  resources  without  severely  degrading  those   resources  for  future  people?”  The  question  we  should  be  asking  instead,  she  retorts,  should   be  

How   many   people,   and   at   what   level   of   consumption,   can   live   on   Earth   without   turning   Earth   into   a   human   colony   founded   on   the   genocide   of   its   non-­‐human  

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indigenes?   The   latter   is   rarely   posed   because   the   genocide   of   nonhumans   is   something  about  which  the  mainstream  culture,  including  the  political  left,  observes   silence  (Crist,  2012:145).  

This  is  the  kind  of  ethical  question  that  could  have  been  more  congruent  with  the  title  of   Wijkman  and  Rockström’s  book.    Wijkman  and  Rockström  avoid  the  question  of  how  much   biodiversity  is  actually  needed  for  humanity  to  sustain  itself.  It  is  questionable  whether  a   purely  economic  approach  to  biodiversity  conservation  is  adequate  to  address  the  loss  of   those  species  not  used  for  consumption,  entertainment  and  medical  experimentation.  For   example,  “left  over  species”  might  be  driven  to  extinction  without  jeopardizing  the  survival   of  the  human  species.  Thus  the  economic  capture  approach  that  puts  a  price  on  nature  that   does  not  fully  address  the  relationship  between  human  beings  and  nature  as  Wijkman  and   Rockström  claim.  

Another  example  of  unresolved  paradox  is  that  of  cooking  stoves:  

Equally   important   would   be   to   improve   access   to   modern   energy,   mainly   the   availability   of   electricity   and   replacement   of   inefficient   stoves.   The   relationship   between  access  to  modern  energy  and  lower  birth  rates  is  unequivocal  (p.  83)  

The  author   of   this   review   is   familiar   with   the   research   on   this   subject.   As   in   the   case   of   adopting   an   anthropocentric   perspective   on   natural   resources,   Wijkman   and   Rockström   seem   to   accept   the   mainstream   notion   that   increasing   wealth   will   automatically   lead   to   fewer  birth  rates  and  more  environmental  responsibility.  The  use  of  old-­‐fashioned  cooking   stoves   may   be   statistically   correlated   to   being   poor,   but   this   correlation   may   be   quite   coincidental  and  may  confuse  the  cause  with  the  symptom.  One  might  as  well  argue  that   since  most  people  with  brown  eyes  are  poor,  changing  the  eye  color  to  blue  would  provide   a  solution  to  poverty.  Only  in  the  case  of  cooking  stoves,  providing  more  electricity  would   mean  demanding  that  more  resources  be  consumed.  While  the  authors  argue  that  the  crisis   will  be  exacerbated  by  the  combination  of  climate  change,  ecosystem  decline  and  resource   scarcity,   in   particular   crude   oil,   the   example   of   stoves   presents   an   odd   case   of   logic.   Yet   another  concern  in  the  case  of  ‘modern’  stoves  is  that  the  same  people  will  be  made  even   more   dependent   on   benefactors   of   ‘progress’,   and   more   alienated   from   the   traditional   practices   that   sustained   them   for   generations   before   colonial   regimes   and   development   agencies  entered  the  stage.  Last  but  not  least,  linking  advances  in  modern  technology  with   lower   birth   rates   might   be   justified   in   some   national   contexts,   but   the   reverse   argument   could  also  be  made  –  as  in  the  case  of  better  medical  technologies  actually  ensuring  that   more   people   survive   into   reproductive   age,   and   thus   the   total   population   continues   increasing.  

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As  for  the  issue  of  practicality,  Bankrupting  Nature  is  not  likely  to  appeal  to  power  elites   that   seem   to   be   enamoured   by   the   more   optimistic   rhetoric   of   successfully   combining   social,  economic  and  environmental  interests.  Bankrupting  Nature  seems  somewhat  naïve   in   the   assumption   that   if   the   knowledge   of   the   problems   as   well   as   prescriptions   for   solutions  are  provided,  the  right  decisions  will  follow.  

While  the   authors   speak   of   a   radical   restructuring   of   social   and   economic   systems,   they   only  explore  more  conventional  solutions,  such  as  saving  energy,  recycling  and  the  phasing-­‐

out   of   fossil   fuels.   For   example,   the   authors   do   argue   in   favor   of   a   circular   economy   that   decouples   wealth   and   welfare   from   resource   consumption,   and   moreover   they   rightly   criticize  recycling  as  downcycling,  and  they  critique  the  assignment  of  monetary  value  to   natural  capital.  However,  this  point  is  lost  throughout  the  book  in  somewhat  contradictory   claims  that  actually  support  eco-­‐efficiency  and  recycling.  This  is  a  rather  ‘safe’  perspective.  

Perhaps  the  book  would  have  profited  from  a  bolder  approach  by  critically  addressing  the   role  of  neo-­‐liberal  democracy.  

In   regard   to   population   the   authors   criticize   donor   countries   for   not   doing   enough   to   support   the   education   of   girls   and   reproductive   health   services,   yet   they   do   not   go   far   enough  in  addressing  the  urgency  of  the  problem.  The  authors  seem  to  repeat  the  all-­‐too   familiar   wisdom  that   if  child   mortality  is   reduced,   fertility   will   be   reduced   as   well.   While   this  is  true  of  some  countries,  it  is  not  necessarily  true  of  others,  such  as  countries  in  Sub-­‐

Saharan  Africa,  where  complex  social  and  cultural  factors  may  play  a  role.  For  example,  in   explaining   the   major   barriers   to   contraceptive   use   around   the   world,   William   Ryerson   argues  that  just  as  essential  as  providing  access  to  wide-­‐spread  contraception  is  addressing   the  motivations  for  having  many  children,  such  as  the  traditional  desire  for  large  families,   religious  opposition  and  unwarranted  fear  of  health  side-­‐effects.  This  conclusion  contrasts   with   the   more   common   idea   that   contraceptive   use   remains   low   in   developing   countries   primarily  due  to  unavailability  of  contraception  (Ryerson,  2012:256).  

While  the  Environmental  Kuznets  Curve  hypothesis  and  post-­‐material  value  theory  suggest   that  environmental  awareness  and  care  increases  along  with  wealth  as  more  basic  human   needs  are  satisfied,  critics  such  as  Dunlap  and  York  (2008)  argue  that  material  saturation   level   in   wealthy   societies   is   too   high   to   be   considered   sustainable   and   that   moreover,   environmental  concern  is  shared  by  both  poor  and  rich  nations.   It  is  questionable  however   whether  human  equality  and  prosperity  as  well  as  population  growth  can  be  achieved  with   the  present  rate  of  natural  degradation.  Which  international  or  local  policies  are  going  to  be   adequate   and   legitimate   in   addressing   these   issues   in   an   ethical   climate   where   birth   limiting   policies   in   non-­‐authoritarian   regimes   are   hardly   conceivable,   and   global   trade   seems   practically   unstoppable?   Can   liberal   democracy   in   its   present   form   genuinely   be  

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counted   on   to   drastically   limit   consumption,   stabilize   human   population   and   combat   climate  change?  

As  the  authors  themselves  say,  ‘we  need  planetary  solutions’  (p.  184).  But  while  discussing   these   issues,  the   authors   are   simply   not   prepared   to   address   the   corresponding   ethically   loaded   questions.   Yet   without   answering   these   questions   this   book   will   fail   to   stimulate   political  and  corporate  leaders  to  think  about  hard  choices.  The  most  important  question   still   needs   answering   –  how   can   the   political   elites   be   convinced   to   make   the   necessary   changes  given  the  current  political,  social  and  economic  status  quo?  

Neither  the  power  elites  nor  the  general  public  will  heed  the  warnings  if  no  hard  financial   or   political   incentives   are   provided.   The   "World   Scientists'   Warning   to   Humanity"  

(UCSUSA1992),   signed   by   1,700   of   the   world's   leading   scientists   and   the   majority   of   the   Noble  Prize  laureates,  begins  with:  "Human  beings  and  the  natural  world  are  on  a  collision   course".  Unfortunately  this  warning  seems  to  have  fallen  on  deaf  ears.  

In   other   words,   while   the   issues   addressed   by   Wijkman   and   Rockström   are   extremely   important,  the  chance  that  their  book  will  change  ‘business  as  usual’  practices  is  very  small.  

This  is  not  a  plea  for  a  radical  departure  from  conventions  or  a  call  for  revolutionary  policy   recommendations  for  addressing  the  limits–to-­‐growth.  Rather,  on  the  part  of  this  reviewer,   it  is  a  gentle  lament  that  Bankrupting  Nature  is  not  an  even  stronger  and  bolder  book  than   it  is.  

   

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